Photos by Tony Cordoza
Riding the bus to school was always a drag, so it felt great to be able to slide behind the wheel of my new car and drive there on the morning of my 16th birthday. Each day after that I'd wake up late, then get halfway home before all the losers who didn't have wheels even got on the bus. Having to work at Taco Bell was a small price to pay for that quantum leap in transportation.
While it won't improve your life as much as a new car in high school, going from a regular tube TV to a big-screen front projector is a theatrical leap of the same magnitude. While the words "big-screen" evoke images of bulky, boxy rear-projection TVs that take up half the room, front projectors can deliver an even bigger picture without the box. And the best part is that some new front projectors, like the PLUS Piano Avanti, don't cost much more than their boxy brethren.
The Avanti, or HE-3200, is the latest DLP projector in the Piano home theater line. DLP (Digital Light Processing) is a Texas Instruments technology that uses a tiny chip covered with hundreds of thousands of micro-mirrors to produce a high-resolution picture. The Avanti has a chip with 848 x 600 mirrors, allowing it to project a widescreen image of 848 x 480 pixels. It can also accept HDTV signals in the 1080i and 720p formats, although it can't display them at full resolution.Looking at this diminutive projector, you'd never guess that it could produce a beautiful 5-foot-wide picture. The Avanti isn't as bright as many projectors in its price range, however, so I wouldn't recommend a screen larger than 84 inches (diagonal). I had initially used a 92-inch screen but found the picture a little too dim even in a completely dark room. And since the projector performs best with widescreen movies and HDTV, I'd definitely pair it with a 16:9 screen. For optimal picture contrast you should consider a specialized low-gain model like the Stewart GrayHawk screen I used for this review.The Avanti has a pair of interfaces for use with computers, one VGA-style RGB input and one DVI (Digital Visual Interface) jack. The DVI input won't work with new HDTV receivers that use the HDCP copy-protection scheme-it's only compatible with computers. The Avanti also has composite- and S-video jacks and a component-video input that accepts standard 480i (interlaced), 480p (progressive-scan), and HDTV signals. The composite input shares one of the component connection's three RCA jacks, so you can't use both simultaneously.
The Avanti's small, easy to use remote control has glow-in-the-dark keys and separate buttons to select each video input. Menu setup options include digital keystone control to compensate for imperfect placement relative to the screen's surface and selections for front, rear, floor, and ceiling installations. There are separate picture memories for each input, and standard picture controls are augmented by advanced options like gamma presets. During setup, the projector's large onscreen menus obscured the picture, making adjustment a little tedious. Also, the available picture controls varied with the input source. For example, when I watched 480p or HDTV programs, I couldn't adjust color.
An auto mode on the Avanti can detect the format of incoming signals and automatically switch between widescreen and standard 4:3 aspect ratios. There's also a button on the remote that manually cycles through five display modes: 16:9 (for widescreen DVDs and HDTV), Real (displays standard programs with correct picture geometry in the center of 16:9 screens), Full (uses the chip's 800 x 600-pixel display capability for better detail on 4:3 screens), and 16:9 Letterbox (for nonanamorphic widescreen DVDs and TV programs). The last mode, Thru, bypasses the projector's scaler completely and throws up the image "as is" regardless of your screen's shape.The Avanti was easy to set up and a joy to use. After finding a stand with the right height, all I had to do was center the image, set the keystone correction, and tweak focus. The top-mounted zoom control gave me about a foot and a half of leeway in placing the projector relative to the screen. The whole process took less than 20 minutes from the moment I opened the box.Since I'd reviewed the Avanti's predecessor, the HE-3100, I wasn't surprised by its whisper-quiet fan. What did surprise me, however, was its superb reproduction of a 1080i-format HDTV version of X-Men on D-VHS tape. Given the Avanti's relatively low-resolution chip, I didn't expect HDTV to look as detailed and sharp as it did. Naturally, I couldn't sit as close as I could have with a true HDTV projector, but at 9 feet from the 84-inch picture, I felt immersed in fine detail without noticing the individual pixels.Brighter DLP projectors may be able to deliver a larger image than the Avanti, but I don't think many could match its excellent black-level performance. In a dark bar scene in X-Men, for example, light sources illuminate small patches of the background as Rouge moves through the crowd. While the darker parts weren't pitch black, they still appeared a satisfactory dark gray. Also, pixel noise in the shadows of this scene was virtually nonexistent.
The Avanti's overall color performance was quite good. In X-Men, the lush greens of the Xavier School and the bright hues of the students' clothes were realistic and deeply saturated, while skin tones looked natural. I'd have liked to reduce the color a bit to improve the appearance of deep reds, such as Cyclops's eye beam, which was on the orange side, but that control unfortunately wasn't available for HDTV sources. Although the Avanti uses a high-speed color wheel to filter out the red, green, and blue components of video images reflected from its DLP chip, I did note a couple of "rainbow" effects while watching X-Men. These subtle flashes of color occurred when I moved my eye away from a bright spot on the screen. However, a total of two rainbows in an hour and 45 minutes is not much to worry about.I compared the Avanti's Silicon Image video processor with the excellent line doubler in the Panasonic DV-RP91 DVD player and had to look long and hard to tell the difference between them. In the Montage of Images section on the Video Essentials test DVD, the image fluctuated a tiny bit as the camera panned across a sports stadium, but that was it. The projector's processor will easily outperform those found in many progressive-scan DVD players. Image artifacts were also minimal as I watched standard television from Dish Network.A number of higher-end HDTV-capable DLP projectors are now hitting the market, and if you crave their added resolution or the larger screen sizes, you'll probably want to check them out. For everyone else, the Piano Avanti from PLUS provides an irresistible combination of high performance and low price. If you've been considering a home theater setup and have the room, it makes an excellent alternative to big rear-projection boxes. And you won't have to get a second job at Taco Bell to afford one.